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Many people have asked how to get started and to use the various on line resources that are available. Where to start depends a great deal on what information you have to hand already. The major hurdle is to get back to the 1921 census when you will be able to use census information to refine your searches. For most people it is fairly easy to get back to 1921, but I will cover the problems here as well for those people who have very little information. Unfortunately getting back to 1921 may cost you some money, even if you do it all yourself there will be the cost of certificates to verify your findings, prior to that there is a good chance that you can get the information you need on line without charge. Not all records are free of course, but there are many web sites out there from large to small containing a whole host of data, all you have to do is to find it. There is a list of useful sites on our LINKS page, Go to the Links Page..

The Forum

The first thing to do is to sign up to the Forum on this site and search it for anyone researching the same names as you are, with luck you will find someone, even if you do not find anyone then post a message with your interests, many people just read the notice board without posting anything to it and they may have the information you want. Whilst anyone may join the Forum, there are more areas accessible to full members of the society. Just click on Forum from the menu at the top left of the page.

Mailing Lists

Next join one of the mailing lists for the areas you are interested in, the most likely for you are the Cumberland and the Westmorland lists, links to these are available on the links page. Go to the Links Page. Don't be afraid to let everyone know what your interests are and be as specific as you can, particularly with names, locations and time periods, just posting a message saying you are interested in the SMITH family will not get you very far, but putting up something like Interested in John Smith who married Jane Jones about 1891 in Penrith, will give people much more to go on and maybe they can link you into their trees.


So lets get down to the basics of where to start, first it is recommended that you get a program to let you keep all the data you find, there are many around, unfortunately PAF (Personal Ancestry File) is no longer available, so you will have to look for an alternative and there are some free ones around, but they are basically reduced function version of programs for sale, to encourage you to buy them, but they are good for a start. You can try

But be careful as each of these sites also has versions for sale and you sometimes have to look carefully to find the free one. All of them allow the export of GEDCOM files so at a later date you can transfer to another program if you wish without losing too much information.

Whilst all of them are basically similar in the way the work, they all have thier own good and bad points and it will usually come down to which way the interface presents information and how you like to work, whilst you can move between programs it may not be easy when your volume of data get substantial especially where you have added a lot of media files. So it can be worth exploring the options before you settle on which program to use.

GEDCOM is just a plain text format file with all your data identified by labels so that it can be exported from and imported into any other program, all programs will normally support GEDCOM, but some may require specific version as it has gone through many revisions, when importing a GEDCOM to your program never forget to backup the data file before you do it in case of corruption and I would recommend you import the GEDCOM to a separate database until you are sure it is importing OK before importing it into your real database.

While the programs are excellent for keeping your data it can be a bit confusing at first, especially when researching new branches, as to what exact relationships are, a suggestion is to use a large board and write names and details on different coloured post it notes ( maybe pink for female and blue for male), you can then move these around the board until you sort out relationships and then transcribe the details to your program. It can also be useful to keep record sheets, to assist in this you can download the following items, these are PDF files that can be completed on your computer and then saved or printed.

Pedigree Chart Individual Record Sheet Family Record Sheet

Now you have your program or record sheets ready you can start to put in the data, why not start with you and then you can work your way backwards and as far to each side as you care to research. Assuming you have no date other than your own, you will need to carry out the following process. You can of course start as far down this list as you wish if you have more information to hand.

Suggested methods

  • First talk to all your living relatives and see what you can get from them, in many cases birth, marriage and death certificates may be hanging around in a drawer somewhere or you will be at least able to get approximate dates for major events. Look for School Certificates, Forces Service Records, National Health Cards, anything that can help you to pin down a date and event and make notes of all these details. Grandma may still have a biscuit tin full of everything you need to get started.
  • Obtain your own birth certificate and extract your parents names.
  • If you do not have your parents birth dates then you will need to work back from their marriage certificate
  • If they are deceased, then work back from their death certificates.
  • Once you have found your parents birth dates then you must repeat this process with your grandparents. In most cases this will get you back to the 1921 census, in some cases you will have to go through a further generation to get there.
  • For futher details on Births Marriage and Death certificates and registration Go to the BMD Page.
  • By now you should have people who were born prior to 1921 and if lucky before 1881 which is the next main census that is freely available on line.
  • For futher details on Censuses Go to the Census Page.
  • Censuses will essentially take you back to around 1841 and can be used in conjunction with BMD's to establish your tree. There are Censuses prior to 1841 but these only cover some areas, futher details are on the Census Page.
  • Prior to 1841 you have to start using Parish Records. In general in Cumbria these records are available and go back to the 1500's though there are some gaps. Many of these records have been transcribed by he Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and are freely available on line. This is the International Genealogical Index refered to as the IGI. Go to the IGI Page.
  • Once you have exhausted BMD, Parish Records and the IGI you will have to fall back on other information that is available and may contain information on your families. You should be getting quite expert by the time you have reached this point. Go back to the Research Page and look at the other categories of information that are there and check the lists page for other useful links, there are many websites around from personal family related ones, through to military and and railway sites which can have personal details of staff.
  • Getting back futher than the start of parish records in 1538 can be extremely difficult , unless you are fortunate enough to have connections to families that have built up personal family trees over the ages.


You can download a document which outlines how to proceed and includes some charts you can use by using this link :

Researching Your Family History

There is a useful booklet you can download and print from the Family History Federation :

My Family Tree Booklet

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